The British Gun Trade grew up in the economic boom of the British Empire, providing the rifles and pistols for the army and navy, and firearms for the sportsmen and women both at home and in the exotic far reaches of Britain’s colonies. In such an environment where soldiers, sailors, sportsmen and women were putting the products of Britain’s gun makers to the test, and often to the test in life and death circumstances, that the British developed both firearm and ammunition technology that attained near legendary status. As a schoolboy growing up near London I was told at school that “The British are best at everything” and at the time I believed it, not least because the people all around me seemed to believe it so in my school boy mind I knew it to be true.
One of the most influential of the British gun makers was Webley and Scott. The company supplied the colonial British Army and Navy with revolvers that, though they were described with typical British self deprecation as “Wobbly Webleys”, earned themselves a reputation for reliability and stopping power against determined foes from Africa to Afghanistan. Thus as we began the twentieth century the British army was settled on the 45 calibre as essential for the stopping power demanded whilst our “Cousins across the pond” in the United States were considering the 38 calibre. Hence John Moses Browning’s early automatic pistol was chambered for the 38 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol). It took practical experience in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 to convince the US Army that nothing less than a 45 calibre produced the stopping power they found necessary when coming against highly motivated tribesmen, who had often used drugs to both raise their level of aggression and to reduce their perception of pain. Thus it was that John M Browning was asked to re-design his pistol around a 45 calibre cartridge and the Colt 1911 was born.
The beginning of the twentieth century was the time of the birth of the automatic pistol. The original classic designs almost all date from this period. Not only the Colt 1911, but the Luger (such as the P-08 of 1908), and pistols from Steyr, Mannlicher, Beretta, Glisenti etc. and even the ultra conservative British decided to develop automatic pistols of their own. However, in Britain there was a rather different culture than the United States or Europe. In Britain there were “things that are done” and there were “things that just aren’t done”. The idea is captured in the early scenes of the movie “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. At the beginning of the movie the British gentlemen are relaxing in their quint little pub in the remote bush of Africa when some foreigners arrive and behave rather badly by shooting up the place with automatic rifles. One of the Brits protests “Automatic rifles? Dashed unsporting!” Dashed unsporting indeed. A British parliamentarian of the period described the weapons of the “terrorist” as “the bomb and the automatic pistol”. So, for a British company to manufacture automatic pistols and for the military to adopt them there were perhaps some cultural hurdles to cross.
What was needed was a bridge to cross that cultural mindset and it came from the highly respectable Lieutenant Colonel George Vincent Fosbery, VC. The “VC” stands for Victoria Cross, the highest medal that can be awarded in the British military. Lieutenant Colonel Fosbery designed an “automatic revolver” initially starting with a modified Colt single action and then took his design to Webley and Scott. The first Webley-Fosbery Automatic Revolver made it’s debut appearance at the Bisley shooting matches of 1900 where it put in some startling performances and gained acceptance. The pistol was made both in the standard British Army .455 calibre as a six shot, and also in 38 ACP as an eight shot (this is the same cartridge as used in John M Browning’s Colt 1903 Pocket Hammer pistol). The Webley-Fosbery was a great success on the shooting range, but it was not a success on the battlefield where dirt and weather caused the mechanism to jam. It’s manufacture ceased towards the end of World War I.
That an automatic pistol might just be a good idea had by then taken root and Webley and Scott began the process of designing, testing and proving automatic pistols, beginning with an effort at a 45 calibre automatic in 1903, which was not success, and then moving to small automatics with 25ACP and 32ACP models in 1906-1908 and a 9mm Browning Long version in 1909. The only Webley and Scott automatic I have had the opportunity to examine was a 25ACP and it was a delightful little piece, well made as one would expect from Webley and Scott, and it handled very nicely, equal I think to the Beretta 418 of James Bond fame. If you have or you acquire any one of these pistols in shootable condition then modern ammunition is still available, 25ACP and 32ACP are in current production, and 9mm Browning Long ammunition can be obtained from Prvi in Serbia.
During this period Webley and Scott had been submitting pistols for evaluation by the British Military Small Arms Committee which had initially rejected their first effort in favour of the Colt. However, in 1910 Webley and Scott submitted an updated design chambered for the 455 Automatic cartridge which succeeded in gaining acceptance and which was subsequently issued to the Royal Navy in 1912, and then to the Royal Horse Artillery and the Royal Flying Corps. This Mk I version was also adopted by the Metropolitan Police in 1911 in 38ACP.
This Mk I pistol was the first automatic to enter regular service with the British military and it was soon to be tested in the rigors of battlefield conditions. Likewise its ammunition, the 455 Automatic also entered service as the standard automatic pistol calibre. As World War I began the British Military had need of arms in large quantities and in short order and the Webley Mk I was soon joined in service by Colt 1911 pistols also chambered in 455 Automatic. So there existed an opportunity to compare the two designs in identical conditions using the same ammunition. From what I have read the Webley automatics did not fare well on the corrosive standard British ammunition. During both World War I and II British ammunition was loaded using mercury fulminate primers with Cordite as the propellent. Mercury fulminate is corrosive and if used the firearm needs to be cleaned by having boiling (or at least hot) water poured down the bore. If this isn’t done then damage will occur to the barrel and action. One of the accepted methods was to use the residual tea left in the teapot. So if you can imagine a British officer of World War I returning from a hard day shooting at the Hun, sitting down in his bunker for a nice hot cup of tea, and pouring tea down the barrel of his wobbly Webley you get a picture of how likely – or unlikely – such elaborate pistol cleaning might have been. Life at the front was perhaps not quite as it has been portrayed by “Blackadder”. Although I don’t have any reliable information concerning how the Colt 1911 handled the conditions and the ammunition it would seem that the pistol was favoured over the Webley so we can guess that it might have fared rather better. Use of non-corrosive lead styphnate primers and nitro-cellulose propellents are said to have eliminated the reliability issues of the Webley.
For those who may have a Webley and Scott in 38ACP and in shootable condition it would be possible to do some range shooting alongside a 1911 pistol. Although there is no manufacturer currently making 38ACP ammunition it can be safely created. The 38ACP cartridge case is identical to the 38 Super which came after it. The loading data however is not the same, the 38 Super is loaded to pressure levels that will cause the premature retirement of any 38ACP pistol, and we don’t want to blow up our antique gun nor do we want to have to endure the medical treatment and/or permanent disability that could result. So the 38 Super cases are safe to use but only with 38ACP loading data. Loading data can be currently found in the Hornady 9th Edition Reloading Manual. Data also appears in some other sources such as the Accurate Arms Reloading Data Guide Number 2 of the year 2000. Loaded ammunition can also be purchased from the Old Western Scrounger who lists handloaded ammunition in 38 Super brass but with 38 ACP loads. As with all loaded ammunition or reloading data please ensure you verify the sources of your ammunition and/or data and have your antique pistol checked by a competent gunsmith before live firing your approximately one hundred year old pistol.
The Webley and Scott automatic pistols were a product of a creative period of history. In terms of their inner workings the smaller calibre pistols were straight blowback and the 455 Automatic and 38ACP used angled slots in the sides of the barrel and slide to delay the opening of the action. The barrel locked up into the ejection port just as the modern day Glock does. The commercial and police models tend to feature a manual safety catch whereas the military tend to favour the “automatic” grip safety. They are something like a cross between a Glock and a Walther P-38, but they are predecessors of them both. These Webley pistols are a rarity nowadays though they periodically turn up at auctions. They are sadly a rarity because private ownership of firearms, especially of pistols, was greatly restricted in Britain after World War I. The reason for this was arguably not to prevent crime. The British government had looked at events in Russia and her revolutions with great concern, so, with hundreds of thousands of experienced and battle seasoned ex-servicemen returning from the war firearms laws to disarm those servicemen were enacted throughout the British empire. These firearms acts in Britain, Australia and elsewhere appear in the early nineteen twenties. Thus it is reasonable to suggest these laws were enacted to ensure there were no nasty revolutions. We also see efforts at getting ex-servicemen busy in employment with such things as the Soldier Settlement Scheme in Australia. For those interested in the history of firearms laws in Britain the the Commonwealth the recommended book is Firearms Control by Colin Greenwood. This book was first published in 1972 and although it is long out of print used copies can still be obtained. It is the best study of this history I have come across. It was the legislation to prevent ordinary people from owning pistols and revolvers that led to the ending of production of the Webley and Scott automatics and to the progressive decline of British firearms manufacturing. A select few have survived, such as Holland and Holland, Purdey and Rigby, but these are kept viable by overseas markets.
The Webley and Scott automatic pistols are gone, and it would be wonderful to see them revived. But in the environment current in the United Kingdom perhaps the best that could be hoped for is that one of the airsoft gun manufacturers would create a model for re-enactors so people could catch a glimpse of what has been lost as they have fun plinking plastic pellets across their living room.
Jon Branch is the founder and senior editor of Revivaler and has written a significant number of articles for various publications including official Buying Guides for eBay, classic car articles for Hagerty, magazine articles for both the Australian Shooters Journal and the Australian Shooter, and he’s a long time contributor to Silodrome.
Jon has done radio, television, magazine and newspaper interviews on various issues, and has traveled extensively, having lived in Britain, Australia, China and Hong Kong. His travels have taken him to Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan and a number of other countries. He has studied the Japanese sword arts and has a long history of involvement in the shooting sports, which has included authoring submissions to government on various firearms related issues and assisting in the design and establishment of shooting ranges.